Embracing straw people at nonNewsweek

Strawman motivationalThe big news at Kurt Soller’s Readback blog over at nonNewsweek comes at the very end of his Dec. 10 post.

Due to the high volume of traffic to this blog, we have had to temporarily disable the comments function. We regret the inconvenience, and hope to have the problem resolved as soon as possible.

It also appears that the permanent link for this item has also been disabled or is currently overwhelmed with use, so it is broken. I hope that this default link will still get you there. Or you can go the above link for the “high volume” reference and back up a page.

Anyway, Soller begins with the obvious. At least, it’s obvious if you’ve been following the MZ Hemingway coverage here at GetReligion:

At this point, I think I can finally say that I’m surprised by the volume of comments we’ve received in regard to Lisa Miller’s cover story about religion and gay marriage. My inbox has received more than 5,000 e-mails today, mainly from people responding to the previous post about the religious reaction to our cover story. And that’s just chump change; our Web editors inbox brims with more than 26,000 missives; our CEO received more than 20,000 e-mails after a campaign organized by the American Family Association revealed his e-mail address, and the offices that handle the hand-written letters are overflowing with notes from impassioned readers, well-wishers and self-proclaimed subscription cancelers. Meanwhile, the story itself has accrued nearly 10,000 comments.

Many Christians out there are upset, for example, with nonNewsweek‘s assumption that only fundamentalists or even “conservative” Christians are clinging to 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on marriage. Then again, there are also plenty of fundamentalists and angry Christians who are writing in to say exactly the kinds of things that nonNewsweek editors would expect them to say. I am sure that all of the “Sodom and Gomorrah” references are providing comfort in the newsroom.

Thus, Soller says, at one point:

If you’ve been reading the comments, I’m sure you’re aware that the viewpoints I’m re-posting are among the more polite ones.

You can read his post if you wish. It’s all about religion, which is clearly what the leaders of nonNewsweek think that this is all about. But over at Beliefnet.com, our friend Steven Waldman has produced a much more interesting post about this controversy, one that assumes this is about journalism, as well as doctrine.

Check out: “Gay Marriage & Newsweek’s Hail Mary.” He begins with his own tenure at the former newsweekly, back in the 1980s and ’90s when everyone was talking about how to be more “edgy” and “nuanced” without admitting that they wanted to go ahead and be an opinion journal. Then we read this crucial passage:

We wanted edge — an undefined sense of non-newspaperiness — without out being one sided or choosing a team in the culture wars. So we often substituted “attitude” for opinion, which sometimes meant more ironic detachment and an ideology of light contempt for American leadership in general. It was an awkward adolescent period.

It looks like Newsweek, in the face of an economic disaster, has decided to do the full monty, becoming an out-and-out opinion-oriented magazine.

The problem is: the readers never got the memo. Most people thought newsmagazines were supposed to be objective and have not been aware of the two decades of soul-searching about how to insert more opinion. So suddenly they wake up and this magazine that used to be balanced has come out of the closet as an overt opinion magazine.

And come out they did!

strawman 1

All of this leads me to write the following. I will post it here, since I have been unable to reach anyone at nonNewsweek.

Dear Mr. Kurt Soller:

It’s the journalism, stupid.

I know it must be comforting to believe that all of the reaction to the Lisa Miller’s doctrinal essay on your recent cover is about a clash between premodern and modern religious believers. I know that it is comforting to see conservative religious groups post the email addresses of editors, resulting in a barrage of often hateful missives from the straw people who probably stopped reading your magazine a decade or so ago.

But you also need to know that many of your readers would have welcomed a journalistic cover story that provided a lively discussion of this issue, featuring the views of liberal Christian scholars (a variety of them, since their views are not always the same) and traditional Christian scholars from a variety of viewpoints — mainline Protestant, evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic and the like. The views of traditional Jews, Muslims and others would have made a wonderful sidebar.

Stop for a minute and think about this in terms of journalism. As MZ Hemingway of our GetReligion.org weblog said the other day, of Miller’s epistle:

She never once speaks with an actual opponent of same-sex marriage. She never once speaks with someone who knows anything about the Biblical model of marriage as understood for thousands of years. This piece is disgusting, unfair and unworthy of a high school graduate. It is the opposite of thought-provoking. It’s a post-frontal lobotomy exegesis of Scripture. This is journalism? This is how people are supposed to cover the news, today?

Or even to cover the news, this week.

As. In. Newsweek.

I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian and have been a registered Democrat as long as I can vote. In all candor, I used to be a “moderate” Southern Baptist. I have been a mainstream newspaper reporter and columnist for three decades and I now teach journalism — mainstream, old-school journalism — in a national network of Christian colleges and universities.

I already take and read The New Republic. I read a variety of liberal Protestant websites and wire services. It’s amazing to see that your publication intends to take a less journalistic approach to religion news than, let’s say, The Christian Century.

I have read Newsweek for many, many years. Should I continue to do so?

Thank you for your time.

Prof. Terry Mattingly
Washington Journalism Center

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Matthew Dent

    Terry –

    THANK YOU! The problem with Miller’s “epistle” (as you put it so well) is that it’s a doctrinal essay under the auspices of “journalism.”

    Mollie did a good job at giving an overview of the problems with Miller’s presentation, but I would think that journalism schools all over the country would be standing in line to decry the publication of this piece as representative of “journalism.”

    If Ms. Miller wants to teach theology, she is free, in this country, to start a church. And, if (un)NewsWeek wants to publish religious dogma, they are free to do so, but they are not free to lie and claim to be journalists.

    I sincerely hope that REAL journalists and journalistic schools will defend their trade against this pretender in their midst.

    M. Dent

  • Chris Bolinger

    Excellent letter, Terry.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I loved Waldman’s take on the matter. I wonder how many journalists have to point out the journalism problems with the piece before Meacham, et. al., “get it.”

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  • Jerry

    I think people here are getting a bit overly obsessed with Newsweek given the number of topics about them. There are many stories there are floating around that could and dare I say should be the focus of attention.

  • Julia

    I think Newsweek is trying to stir controversy to keep its publication alive. The outrage and over-reactions of people are exactly what they hoped to elicit. The timing of their trashing-of-Christianity cover articles at the time of religious holidays is part of their schtick.

    We should stop falling for it and ignore Newsweek. And don’t post or comment to their execrable On Faith website.

    We don’t gitve this kind of attention to the atrocious stories in the tabloids; why should Newsweek benefit from all this attention? They are controvercial on purpose as a marketing tool – just like The Star in the check-out line.

  • Julia

    Why isn’t Meacham castigating Obama and Biden, who [IIRC]both said they thought marriage should remain between one man and one woman?

  • Stan

    I enjoyed Newsweek’s article very much. There have always been opinion pieces in the mag since I’ve been reading, so I don’t get why people are so bothered about another one (beyond agreeing or disagreeing w/the opinion expressed).

  • David

    The problem is that marriage is where church and state have always met, Stan.

    The problem with the article is that it is AWFUL.

    NonNewsweek. Cute, Terry.

  • Daniel

    I acknowledge Terry’s journalistic concerns.

    But it appears to me that the vast majority of those objecting to the Newsweek piece are not doing so on journalistic grounds. Richard Land and Tony Perkins are not upset because Lisa Miller failed to use the inverted pyramid in writing her story. Likewise, most of the comments on this Web site too are more about theology than journalism. FWIW.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Did you read my post?

    I also think you would be surprised at the number of doctrinal traditionalists who would support journalistic coverage that treated both sides with respect. Some straw people are going to get mad, true. But many more people would actually back the journalistic option.

    Please read the post again.

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  • Daniel

    Of course, I read your blog post and letter. [ed. -- expletive deleted] Why would I post something here if I didn’t read your post? I come to this site because I’m interested in the discussion about religion and journalism, not debates on Leviticus.

    But I was saying that I think you need to recognize and acknowledge that the reaction to the Newsweek piece is being driven primarily by theological and political agendas, not journalistic concerns.

    I think you and Mollie have raised good points about the quality of Miller’s journalistic essay. But Focus on the Family and Human Rights Watch are not getting excited because of any journalistic issues, as legitimate at those are.

    I’m not as up in arms about the piece as Mollie, but I don’t have a dog in the fight over same-sex marriage. As her editor, Meacham should have told Miller that she had written a provocative piece but then sent her back for additional reporting. Happens all the time.